Meet the Indigenous Leaders Who Are Lighting a Fire on Climate Change: A 3-D Journey Through the Australian Bush
By: Erin Myers Madeira and Tyronne Garstone
Fires are burning across the savanna landscape of Nyikina Mangala country. The fires are lit and managed by the Nyikina Mangala rangers together with cultural adviser and senior elder Mr. John Darraga Watson. Watson prefers to use matches while his younger crew dons drip torches. Soon, the grass is engulfed in flames. Just as quickly, it smolders out.
When it comes to managing these landscapes, “the most important thing is to listen to elders, I reckon, and the traditions and laws,” explains Ashton Howard at another burn site. Howard is a member of the Bardi Jawi ranger group based in Ardyaloon (One Arm Point) on the Kimberley’s Dampier Peninsula. “They know what’s best for the country because they live there and have been monitoring for years.”
Monitoring the glowing embers, he points out, “This is a cool burn because the flames are real low. It’s early in the year when it’s still green. We burn to reduce the fuel load and stop the late season wildfires that burn much hotter.”
In 2016, staff from The Nature Conservancy visited these areas in northern Australia to film virtual reality (VR) videos with our Indigenous partners, documenting their work in this vast landscape where their ancestors lived and worked for tens of thousands of years.
Transport yourself to Australia where Indigenous leaders and scientists will take you on a journey through the bush.
Editor’s Note: For the best experience, use your mobile device or a virtual reality headset to view these videos.
For more than 50,000 years, Indigenous Australians practiced careful management of the land that provided their food, shelter and livelihoods. Traditional fire practices centered on clearing bush to hunt for food, as well as regenerating the bush through new growth—and as a result, Australian landscapes evolved in the presence of fire for tens of thousands of years and have come to depend on it to regrow and flourish. But prescribed burning and the traditional way of life were interrupted due to European settlement.
As a result of European settlement, Indigenous groups suffered cultural and social dislocation from the land and waters that served as their source of life. Dry grasses built up and much larger wildfires sparked from natural causes like lightning. These larger and hotter fires devastate vegetation and animal habitat—and release a greater volume of greenhouse gases.
Aboriginal people have a deep connection to country—the surrounding natural territory—a major part of their identity. Having managed the land for tens of thousands of years, country is ingrained within their culture and that sense is passed down through generations. Hear from members of the Jarlmadangah Burru community about the role country plays in their lives.
The Bardi Jawi community, at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley, is helping native plant species to recover in this landscape. Watch to learn more about why managing these lands is so important to the Bardi Jawi culture.
What’s the economic significance of commercializing traditional land management activities for Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley? Learn more about how the Kimberley Land Council is helping to better livelihoods from Acting CEO Tyronne Garstone.
Preserving biodiversity, connecting to country and earning a sustainable livelihood are possible all at once through the Indigenous Ranger Program. It also saves lives.
Uncontrollable fire is the prime example of the environmental damage resulting from disruption to these traditional ways of landscape management. But a quiet revolution is taking place across the Australian Outback as Indigenous Australians are beginning to return to their ancestral lands to both manage them for conservation and provide a livelihood for their families as they did for thousands of years. The Indigenous Ranger Program, begun in 2007, is supported by a variety of organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and the Australian Government. This program allows Indigenous people to maintain their relationship with the land, ensuring both the land and their culture continue to thrive.
“I think the ranger program has probably saved a lot of young people on country… You can see their self-confidence … has grown dramatically…They’ve become a good role model for kids.” – Bibido, Bardi Jawi Ranger Coordinator
In addition to fire management, the rangers also work on weed and feral animal control, take care of cultural heritage sites, and protect endangered species across the landscape.
“Being a ranger…You’re using traditional knowledge and western science to look after country … It makes me feel proud of who I am and my identity as an Aboriginal person. I’m glad to be out on my ancestors’ country burning.” – Robin Dann, Head Ranger, Wungurr Rangers
Indigenous knowledge and stewardship has been critical to protecting landscapes across the globe for millennia. The fire management work conducted by Australian Indigenous groups demonstrates the importance of retaining this body of cultural practice and knowledge and its potential to provide livelihoods for Indigenous peoples living in remote communities. Furthermore, this work with fire has prevented the emission of hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere across millions of hectares – the equivalent of taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road – while also generating millions in revenue for conservation work.
To date, Indigenous fire managers have secured contracts for 9.1 million tons of avoided CO2 emissions, generating at least US$81 million in funding for indigenous-led conservation and employing 250 people. By 2025, a robust carbon economy could create 500 full-time equivalent jobs for 1,000 Aboriginal people, lead to 28.2 million tons of emissions reductions and bring $339 million in income for Aboriginal land managers.
“Our People … have … a long history that goes back forty, fifty thousand years. This knowledge has been passed on from generation to generation, from the old people to the young people. We say that Aboriginal people are the first conservationists, and it’s because of those values, because of that cultural relationship that Aboriginal people have with land.” – Nolan Hunter, CEO, Kimberley Land Council
Picking through the vegetation looking for bushfood, Linda Nardea paused to take in the view. The low sun made the cliffs particularly red and the spring resulted in a striking green burst of trees and shrubs. It was rough country, but breathtakingly beautiful. She pointed to the boots of the people around her. “Look at your shoes – I don’t need no shoes. The land knows me. She protects my feet. We belong here and we take care of each other. There’s no other way.”
To learn more about TNC’s work and our Indigenous partners in northern Australia and across the globe, please visit: https://global.nature.org/collections/indigenous-local-communities.
Erin Myers Madeira is Global Program Lead for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities at The Nature Conservancy. Tyronne Garstone is Acting CEO at Kimberley Land Council.